Hayder, Mo - 'Poppet'
The mentally ill patients in Beechway High Secure Unit are highly suggestible. A hallucination can spread like a virus. When unexplained power cuts lead to a series of horrifying incidents, fear spreads from the inmates to the staff. Amidst the growing hysteria, AJ, a senior psychiatric nurse, is desperate to protect his charges.
Detective Inspector Jack Caffery is looking for the corpse of a missing woman. He knows all too well how it feels to fail to find a loved one's body. When AJ seeks Caffery's help in investigating the trouble at Beechway, each man must face a bitter truth in his own life. Before staring pure evil in the eye.
Mo Hayder has never shied away from disturbing material. In fact, she's made her name that way. "Not for the faint-hearted" is a phrase which might have been coined for her books. I must admit to not being a huge fan of her earlier novels, which seemed to rely on shock value at the cost of something deeper or more lasting. But I absolutely loved SKIN and RITUAL, her first two Caffery books set in Bristol. And POPPET, for my money, is even better.
There's a delicious blend of horror and crime here, from the first creepy sighting of the cover (how is it possible for a kitsch china cat to look so scary?) to the teasing straplines: "The Maude is outside. It wants to come in. It wants to sit on your chest". You know you're going to be frightened reading this book. What might be less obvious - from the blurb, from Hayder's reputation - is how much you'll be moved.
The cast in the asylum is highly original; empathy does not come quickly or easily, but each has a heart which is heard beating by the reader as it is by the thoroughly decent AJ, a hero worthy of sharing the narrative honours with Jack Caffery. You care deeply for the fate of the inmates and trust AJ (as they do) to bring them some sort of peace. This being Hayder, of course that peace comes at a cost.
Jack Caffery has grown up quite a bit since BIRDMAN and spends less time dwelling on his past and more time trying to help those in the present, not least his police colleague Flea Marley. Flea is a fantastic character, as damaged in her way as Caffery, and the dance performed by the pair as they step around the untold truths of earlier stories is painful and poignant to watch.
It's worth mentioning that this is a novel told in the present tense, in short titled chapters and with multiple points of view. Personally, I loved it for this as much as for its clever plotting and compassion. Readers who dislike the present tense should persevere as it really is an excellent read - one of my favourites so far of 2013.
Sarah Hilary, England
Sarah Hilary is the Bristol-based winner of the Cheshire Prize of Literature 2012, the Sense Creative Writing Award 2010 and the Fish Criminally Short Histories Prize 2008. In 2012, she launched Flashbang, a crime writing contest in association with CrimeFest. Sarah's debut novel, SOMEONE ELSE'S SKIN, will be published by Headline in 2014.